Restoring the Origins of the First Crusade: A Medieval Chronicle Written in the Twenty-First Century

Review of The First Crusade: The Call from the East, by Peter Frankopan (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012)

Peter Frankopan's The First Crusade: The Call from the East is a provocative piece of scholarship. The author of the book proposes essentially to rewrite - or perhaps restore - the history of the origins of the First Crusade. Frankopan's argument is that the First Crusade - though it has traditionally been regarded in western scholarship as a pious call to European knights for military pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the behest of Pope Urban II - occurred as the result of a direct appeal to the West for military aid by the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos. Frankopan then goes on to show exactly why and how Alexios, cooperating with Urban, kindled the fire of crusading spirit in the souls of westerners, and how Alexios and Urban together coordinated the entire military enterprise of the First Crusade together as best they could. Frankopan then goes on to show why and how Alexios' role in the First Crusade was eventually - and he argues deliberately - washed out of the narrative of the conquest of Jerusalem. He attributes this whitewashing of history to the figure of the western "hero" of the First Crusade, Bohemond I of Taranto, who attempted to conquer Byzantium after the conclusion of the First Crusade.

The book's first five chapters survey the political and military situations of Western Europe and Byzantium prior to the First Crusade. Here Frankopan sketches the political web that ultimately united Alexios and Urban and resulted in the call for crusade. Urban was in desperate need of an ally, even if that ally came from schismatic Byzantium. Frankopan's biggest argument in these opening chapters, however, is his assertion that in the East, Byzantium was not in fact teetering on the brink of disaster when Alexios came to power in 1081. Instead, the devastating loss of Byzantine Asia Minor is held to have in fact occurred during Alexios' reign, which explains why the First Crusade did not take place until the last decade of the Eleventh Century.

Alexios, desperate to save his beleaguered empire, found in Pope Urban perhaps his most important ally. Urban likewise saw an opportunity to strengthen his own position through alliance with Byzantium, and so he and Alexios came to an understanding. Urban would send out a call throughout western Christendom for soldiers to come to Alexios' aid by appealing to the western desire to undertake pious pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which had been conquered by the Muslims in the Seventh Century. But while Alexios and Urban saw the crusaders as soldiers fighting for Byzantium, the crusaders themselves were mainly concerned with fighting for Jerusalem.

Alexios, however, eventually came to be slandered and largely written out of the narrative of the crusade's origins. Frankopan argues that initially the crusaders enjoyed a relatively stable relationship with Alexios. But as they marched forward and eventually succeeded in retaking Jerusalem, Alexios came to be seen with hostility by the crusaders. In the final chapters of this book, Bohemond of Taranto rises to prominence. Frankopan traces Bohemond's story in the crusade as the prince went from being Alexios' enemy, to his closest ally, and eventually to his enemy once again. Throughout this narrative, Bohemond also becomes a heroic figure among the crusaders, renowned for his courage and military fortitude.

Alexios, meanwhile, came to be viewed by westerners with suspicion when the emperor failed to keep his promise to march to Jerusalem with his army alongside the crusaders. Instead, Alexios had his faithful lieutenant Tatikios accompany the crusaders after the conquest of Nicaea, and when the crusaders were on the brink of defeat during their expedition, Alexios, they said, failed to send them any military relief. Although the crusaders ultimately did succeed in taking Jerusalem, the damage to Alexios' reputation was already done. As one reads the book, however, one gets the feeling that one of Frankopan's less explicitly stated objectives is to rehabilitate the image of the emperor Alexios Komnenos in western historiography. Frankopan does this, for example, by stating several times throughout the book that Alexios had not in fact failed in his obligations to the crusaders, and he adduces evidence from the sources to support his claims.

Finally, Bohemond, the hero of the crusade, eventually sought to conquer Byzantium, and so attempted to rally support in the west by portraying his designs on Byzantium as almost a new crusade. Frankopan demonstrates that this resulted in the slandering of Alexios by showing that much of the literature recounting the narrative of the First Crusade was written as Bohemond was preparing his expedition against the Byzantines. Bohemond ultimately failed to conquer Byzantium, but in the West he never lost his image and reputation as a great hero of the First Crusade, and likewise Alexios was to be seen as a treacherous figure in the West evermore. Pope Urban, minus his ally Alexios, thus became the key figure responsible for the glorious military pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Provocative and engaging as the book is, Frankopan is making an argument from silence. While his analyses do seem reasonable and insightful, many of his arguments rest on conclusions about how things may have happened - and why events did unfold that way is often a matter of Frankopan suggesting reasons that they may have been excluded from the narrative. In many cases, it seems possible that another scholar could suggest an alternative reason for why an event was removed from the sources - if indeed such an event even did occur. Ultimately, though, it seems reasonable to at least consider Frankopan's interpretation of the First Crusade's origins as valid and plausible, though readers of the book should be aware of its limitations, and may certainly wish to dispute individual points of Frankopan's argument along the way.

It is worth noting that one of the most interesting features of the book is its presentation. Frankopan weaves his arguments into a grand narrative of the First Crusade that recounts the entirety of the campaign in reasonable, but not overwhelming, detail. Hence the title of this review: what Frankopan seems to have done, essentially, is to write an account of the First Crusade that could be stylistically compared to a medieval narrative chronicle. This suits the overall tone and objective of the book quite admirably.